Ah, Animal Kingdom. My favorite park. My home park. During my College Program (oh, you didn’t know I participated in the Disney College Program? Let me remind you again!) I worked at the Animal Kingdom as a main entrance merchandise cast member which included working in the gift shop right outside of the park, the gift cart opposite the shop, the cart next to Guest Relations, Locker Rental, the PhotoPass gift shop, and stroller and ECV rentals. Okay, I’m going to get on my soap box for a quick second. I loved my experience with the Disney College Program. I’ve heard the horror stories. I’ve heard them all. I get it, your coworker’s daughter hated her program because she got paid minimum wage and, gasp, had to actually work. I’ve heard it and I don’t care. I knew what I was signing up for. I willingly and happily signed up to be cheap labor and nothing more than a number to an international Fortune 100 company. I was realistic about what my experience would be and understood my days would be long and pay would be low. But you know what? Most internships don’t pay anything and I got to work at Disney freaking World, a lifelong dream of mine. I loved playing with bubble guns and light sabers and watching children’s’ faces light up. I loved receiving strollers from parents at the end of the day and listening to their child’s stories about their favorite character and favorite rides. I loved being part of the magic. As a human being, I had some of my most rewarding experiences when Make a Wish children wanted to hug me because they were so grateful for their experience. As a professional, I learned my most important soft skills like interpersonal communication, customer service, and conflict resolution. And as a girl who grew up on princess movies and fairytales, I geeked out when I had to drive an ECV through the parade route and the entire crowd cheered me on as I princess waved. Don’t come for my internship experience; I will make it rain pixie dust all over your negative ass. Airplane Ass mic drop. *Gets down from soap box. Okay, sorry, I’m done….maybe. I make no promises.
Animal Kingdom opened on Earth Day (April 22) in 1998. It is the largest theme park in the world but actually has the smallest amount of people space of all 4 of the Disney World theme parks. The safari is just that big. It is the 6th most visited theme park in the world and is dedicated to the natural environment and animal conservation, a cause near and dear to Walt Disney himself. Unlike in the other parks, you won’t find any plastic straws, lids, or balloons. Everything used in the Animal Kingdom is biodegradable. It was recently announced that the other parks will be similarly following suit in the coming years. There are also no nighttime fireworks as the sound would be upsetting to the animals that live there and up until just a few years ago, there was no nighttime activity at all. Just a heads up, this park can only be reached by car or bus. There is no other transportation option such as monorail or boat.
The theme of the park is separated into 3 parts, each of which is honored at the park’s entrance: What was, what is, and what never will be. Check out Dinoland and Dinosaur for the “what was” portion of the park. “What is” can be found throughout the park in the form of animal trails, the safari, and animal conservation efforts. “What never will be” can now be experienced in the new Pandora land. Wanting guests to experience a true adventure, Joe Rhodes, the head Imagineer of the park, did not print park maps for the first few weeks of the park opening. He wanted guests to truly experience what an adventure would feel like. As you can imagine, guests did not enjoy this and after many complaints of being lost, maps were made and are still used today.
The park is built in the shape of a……..WHEEL! Yes, a wheel, built around the Tree of Life, the park’s main icon. At the bottom of the wheel, heading towards the Tree of Life, you walk through an area called the Oasis. This area definitely gets you in the mindset that you are leaving Orlando and entering the Animal Kingdom. The Oasis features multiple animal exhibits that allows guests to see some smaller animals like wallabies, swans, and macaws.
As you walk out of the Oasis you come upon Discover Island featuring the beautiful Tree of Life, a 145ft sculpture of a baobab tree. The Tree has 325 carvings of animals, both living and extinct and houses the 3D show It’s Tough to be a Bug. With over 1,000 leaves placed on the tree, it really is a beautiful sight and is my personal favorite park icon. Discovery Island is the central hub of the park/wheel and houses a few more animal exhibits as well as the park’s largest gift shops. The area is named after the former location of a wildlife observation area near the Magic Kingdom which has recently been announced to become a new resort. At night, projections light up the Tree of Life and if you’re a big Up fan, you can meet Russell and Doug from the movie just under the right side of the Tree. Discovery Island is also home to the Flame Tree BBQ which offers the not-to-be-missed pulled pork nachos.
As you move to the right of wheel, you’ll come upon Dinoland. Dinoland is made up of two parts: The Dino Institute which houses Dinosaur, a thrilling ride back in time to the Cretaceous period based on the 2000 movie of the same name, and Chester & Hester’s Dinorama, a roadside carnival type area featuring familiar carnival games and attractions. The story behind this area is The Dino Institute moved in and bought up all the surrounding land, homes, and businesses but Chester & Hester wouldn’t sell their land to the Institute. Dinorama is supposed to look a little tattered and beat up; it is a roadside carnival after all. Don’t worry about getting FastPasses for any of the attractions in this area; the other areas of the park typically are more popular and have more traffic. Just above Dinoland sits the Theater in the Wild which features a Finding Nemo live show. Personally, I’m not the biggest fan of the show but if you’ve got young kids or are in desperate need of a break from the Florida heat, this is a great option.
Moving up the wheel, you begin to make your way to Asia, the first expansion to the park after its opening. This area opened shortly after the park’s initial opening in 1999. The Asia section of the park is based off of a fictional Anandapur village which features the Forbidden Mountain of Expedition Everest, my favorite ride on Disney World property. Here you’ll narrowly escape being captured by the Yeti himself (although fun fact, the Yeti used to swing his arm but he’s so heavy that his swinging was pulling the entire ride off its foundation). Depending on the time of day you’re heading to the Animal Kingdom, you may want to grab a FastPass for this attraction. Or if you can separate from your group during the ride, the single rider option is a great way to skip a long wait time. In Asia you will also find the Kali River Rapids attraction (prepare to get completely drenched), Up! A Great Bird Adventure bird show, the Maharajah Jungle Trek (great for seeing Tigers not found on the Safari), and the seating area for the amazing nighttime show Rivers of Light. My favorite Quick Service restaurant in the Animal Kingdom is located in Asia: Yak & Yeti. But don’t confuse the quick service with the full service location of the same name right next door!
To the left of Asia sits Africa, the largest section of the park based off of the fictional Harambe village. I love this part of the park from the food to the music and entertainment. Here you’ll find the Kilimanjaro Safari Adventure that takes guests on a 20 minute ride through the Safari and showcases some of your favorite wild animals. Grab a FastPass for this one; the lines get can gnarly. Once you’re done with your safari ride, head over to the Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail where once again, you can see some amazing animals not featured on the safari. In this portion of the park, you will also find the Festival of the Lion King, the greatest show on property. It’s amazing, beautiful, breathtaking, and emotional; it’s everything. Whatever you do, do not miss this show. Depending on the time of year, the show runs either every half hour or every hour. Your whole family will love it and it is air conditioned! Finally, you’ll find the train station for Rafiki’s Planet Watch here in Africa.
The Wildlife Express Train takes you a little north to Rafiki’s Planet Watch, a behind the scenes look at Disney’s conservation and animal research efforts. Rafiki’s Planet Watch also offers a petting zoo, called Affection Station, and the Habitat Habit exhibit where you can see adorable Cotton Top Tamarins. Just a quick heads up, the Affection Station is closed until spring 2019, although no reason has been given.
Heading back into the wheel, below Africa, sits Pandora, the newest addition to the park which opened in May of 2017. But first, a little background information on what lived in this area previously. Before Pandora land began its construction journey in 2014, Camp Minnie Mickey lived in its place. The Festival of the Lion King used to be housed here before its logical move to Africa. You were also able to meet some of your favorite characters like Mickie, Minnie, and Pocahontas. Remember how I mentioned the original theme of the park was to include “what never was?” Well Camp Minnie Mickey certainly doesn’t make sense in that theme concept now does it? Originally this area was meant to be called Beasty Kingdom, a land devoted to creatures of legend and mythology such as unicorns and dragons. Have you ever seen the Dueling Dragons roller coaster at Universal Studios? That was supposed to be the main attraction for this land as well as a maze and a boat ride through the scenes of Fantasia. Due to budgeting and timeline constraints, Beastly Kingdom never materialized and Camp Minnie Mickey was put as a filler for park opening. The plan was to have Beastly Kingdom open at a later date but with the money draining Euro Disney causing issues, it was scrapped altogether. Cue the Pandora land in 2017!
This area is inspired by the James Cameron film of the same name and features the floating mountains, plants, and wildlife shown in the movie. This new land saw the addition of two new attractions to the park, Avatar Flights of Passage and the Na’Vi River Journey. You are going to need a FastPass for Flights of Passage but beware they’re tough to come by for reasoning mentioned in a preview post. Therefore, if you are not able to score a FastPass, get to the park about 30 minutes prior to park opening. It’s the only way to avoid that insane wait time. I recently visited in September and got to the park right at opening and still had to wait an hour. It’s absolutely worth it but I don’t know that I’d wait more than that. The Na’Vi River Journey truthfully feels like the forgotten stepsister of this area, like they blew their budget on everything else and went, “oh shit, we forgot about the boat ride.” It’s fine, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not Flights of Passage and it is certainly not worth more than a 10 minute wait. What is worth a wait is the new quick-service location, Satu’li Canteen and the bar right outside of it. The food is delicious and the drinks are even better. Originally considered a “half-day” park, the Animal Kingdom saw a 2 million person attendance jump with the opening of Avatar. Although truthfully, I’d still argue you can conquer the park in a half day. The exception to that rule is the Rivers of Light nighttime show. It’s a light and water show that conveys the message of being one with our world. It’s beautiful and I adore the message. With all the new things at Animal Kingdom, we spent the morning and early afternoon in the park, went back to our hotel and took a nap, had dinner at Boma (right next door to the park at the Animal Kingdom Lodge), and went back to the park for the show. I highly recommend this plan of action for the park!
As with any “zoo” type attraction, Animal Kingdom is not without controversy. It saw protests on its opening day from animal activity groups and just 3 years ago was ranked #10 on the Worst Place for Elephants list. Despite the controversy, Disney is doing great things for animals. Just 10 years after its opening, 8 white rhinos were born, a nearly extinct species, in addition to 7 elephant calves and 11 giraffes.
Quick fun fact about the park before we wrap up! Animal Kingdom is the only park with doors on its restrooms (all other park restrooms can be accessed without going through any kind of door). This is because in the unlikely event of an animal escape, guests can go into the bathroom and the lock the doors for safety.
*Quick soap box moment: I love this park so much. It’s perfect for every group at Disney World. Kids and parents will love it. It’s got the smallest amount of people space so your knees won’t be throbbing like after a day at Epcot. If I could start and end my Disney World vacations here, I probably would. Just kidding, I could never do that.